18th February 2000 at 00:00
That quiet child who seems so talentless is always worth watching. Trevor Baylis - inventor of the wind-up radio - was dubbed "backward" at school, while Michael Crawford failed his 11-plus. Look at them now.

Parcel Arrived Safely: tied with string (Random House pound;7.99) is Crawford's own reading of his abridged autobiography. He grew up basking in the love of his adored mother and grandmother, until the fateful day when he acquired a stepfather who vented his dislike of him with savage beatings.

Crawford's treble voice got him into a London choir school at the age of nine, and he was taken up by Benjamin Britten who cast him in his children's opera Noye's Fludde.

Stage-struck, Crawford achieved his initial fame as the dimwit Frank Spenser in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em - not the most obvious preparation for his subsequent role in Phantom of the Opera, to which he brought a unique combination of ferocity and tenderness.

But in that sitcom he had also distinguished himself with wild stunts, including roller-skating under a moving lorry: this helped him make his escape from type-casting by landing the role of Barnum, for which he learned and performed some hair-raising circus skills.

He has made and lost a fortune, at one point spending 18 months stuffing cushions to keep the wolf from the door. He married, had two children, was unfaithful, and lost his home and family. Something in his nature causes him to push both life and himself to the limit. His story, as he reads it, is by turns funny, unbearably sad, and alwas riveting.

Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale is the most accomplished of his novels of industrial Staffordshire, dealing with two sisters' dreary lives in a narrowly provincial setting. One marries her father's assistant and remains dutifully in his drapery store; the other elopes to Paris.

In this absorbing novel, Bennett perceptively portrays their aspirations and trajectories. David Haig brings theatrical skill to his reading (Cover to Cover unabridged pound;59.99. Tel: 01672 562255).

Poetry, prose, and music are beautifully interwoven in A Lover's Gift: from him to her and from her to him. Extracts from Shakespeare, Marlowe, Burns, the Bront s and many others are read with wonderful expressiveness by Michael Sheen and Laura Paton. The results are revelatory both in literary and musical terms (Naxos pound;6.99 for each cassette, pound;8.99 for CDs).

With the aid of six other actors, Sir Derek Jacobi expertly narrates Kings and Queens of England (CSA Telltapes pound;8.99, booklet pound;4. Tel: 0208 960 8466). Contemporary diaries, literary descriptions and speeches enrich this fascinating sweep of history which begins in 1066 with William of Normandy defeating Harold to forge a new country from scratch. Wars, uprisings, and trade battles broaden the canvas, across which stride monarchs who are brilliant, bad, or simply dutiful.

The account is full of fascinating did-you-knows: there were only three weeks of fighting in the Thirty Years' War; George III was thelast king to lead his troopsinto battle.

Betty Tadman

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